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Back home in the middle kingdom – How China Eastern Airlines are fostering Chinese civil society (maybe)

Having an unplanned seven-hour layover with a two-hour delay on top can also be a great opportunity to witness a tiny bit of Chinese civil society.

A little bit of social protest in Kunming, China

After accidentally overstaying my Thai visa I was quite happy to touch Chinese ground instead of sitting in a Thai prison cell. I had been looking forward to return to the middle kingdom. I know it seems ridiculous to accidentally overstay a visa, my feeble defence can only be that numbers and I have never been friends (most of the time I can hardly remember how old I am).

I had been looking forward to going to China for several reasons, one being that I to be able to communicate with people again through actual spoken language and not through miming (although I can know express quite a lot through simply using my hand and feet).

Though my Mandarin definitely has suffered in the last year, it’s still enough to get my point across. Moreover I had already worked out a long list of dishes I wanted to eat on top of which was of course one of my favourite dishes in the world: Sichuan Hot pot.

Coming to Chengdu is always a bit like coming home. Even though as a foregner I’m not really integrated in society I always feel automatically at ease when I touch Chengdu ground. Accordingly I was very excited to after a year of absence returning to the hot pot of Sichuan: Chengdu.

The new Chinese Middle Class

My happiness was slightly tarnished by the fact that I got an aisle seat beside a slightly obese man (Chinese would say fat) and his wife who looked like a Chinese version of a middle class housewife from the 1950s that were both clearly displeased to have me sitting next to them.

Both had the arrogant air of the new upper middle class: Enough money to do a lot of shopping, but not enough (yet) to fly business class. The natural consequence for them was to scoff at everybody else in cattle class. And pretend that I didn’t exist, a very uncomfortable thing to do if you share an armrest.

Since China Eastern cancelled my onwards flight and put me on the only other flight to Chengdu I know have the pleasure of staying at Kunming airport for seven hours. When they tell me that I can’t check in my luggage (that couldn’t be checked through to Chengdu) for the next three hours I get slightly annoyed.

This might also have to do with the fact that I am getting hungry (which always takes me a bit to realise). My friends can tell you from painful experience that the one thing that really gets to me is being hungry. Hunger has been referred to being my personal kryptonite (not that I have any super power, except for sometimes being able to shower really fast).

I change some money and enter the next little grocery store. Buying one of my favourite non-alcoholic drinks in the whole wide world brings the first big smile to my face: coconut milk. The black tins that have hardly changed their design since my childhood in Shanghai in the 1980s have the sweet taste of a lot of sugar and memories of the good old times when my parents and I lived at Tongji university and were actually more or less happy together.

I have my first Chinese meal (hongshao niurou mian) and then do, what all good Chinese do, curl up on the bench of the restaurant and have a nap. The seven hours pass surprisingly fast and soon I’m sitting at the gate waiting to board the plane to Chengdu. A loud communal yelp lets me take off my headphones to find out, that our flight is two hours delayed. Great. I pack my stuff to go back to the only place with free Wi-Fi: Starbucks. For once I whole heartedly salute globalisation and capitalism.

Regular meals at certain times are highly important for most Chinese

While I walk towards Starbucks and out of the security check zone once more and lament the fact that I now have to spend even more time at this boring airport I bump into something beautiful: public protest.

There is a group of Chinese holding hands and yelling something. I’m too far away to understand what they say, but they don’t seem happy. I’m intrigued. I look around and snap a quick photo before any of the helpless but annoyed looking security guards can possibly stop me or even tell me to give up my phone.

I consider walking passed, just because the visa situation has been strained and foreigners have to be more mindful not to get in the way of the law than usual. But my curiosity gets the better of me.

The number of security guards accelerates and a few take videos of the protesters. The protesters on the other hand film everything on several smart phones and are probably already putting comments and photos on Weibo, the Chinese answer to twitter.

I approach a middle-aged woman that stands a bit further off and ask her what’s going on. She’s delighted that I speak mandarin and explains to me in beautiful clear Putonghua that she and the others are a group of teachers who are on the way to Sanya, a beach place on China’s biggest islands (if you dare to not count Taiwan as a Chinese island).

However China Eastern cancelled their flight and refused to give them any information on when or even if they could get on another flight. It especially angers her that there wasn’t any dinner “they just refused to give us information and now we didn’t even get even food” she fumes.

How to overthrow the Chinese government

For those of you who haven’t been to China you should know, that most Chinese feel equally strong if not stronger than I about the regular supply of food. In Chengdu people eat lunch around 12.00 and dinner at 18.00. If you dare to go to a restaurant between that time and disturb the chef from his nap I’d be afraid that he might spit into your food because you interrupted his siesta.

It’s a common Laowai business experience that nothing happens during lunch or dinnertime. If you refuse to give your employees time for lunch at 12.00 there will be turmoil.

So of course the China Eastern passengers were hungry and upset when at 20.00h they not only didn’t know when they would get to Sanya but still weren’t given any dinner.

When my next flight from Chengdu to Shanghai was one hour delayed, Air China quite quickly supplied all guests with a little tray of food and a bottle of water- not one person complained. Even when the plane was another half hour delayed.

These experiences lead me to the theory that if the Chinese government would be overthrown it would probably happen because of food (which I find quite reasonable). If somebody for instance would manage to have all newspapers say that the government has decided to cut all lunch breaks in the whole country I don’t think they would last another day.

Warm-hearted People of Sichuan

When I finally board my next plane I am already enjoying the Sichuan dialect spoken by almost everybody around me. As so often on my way to Sichuan, I’m the only Laowai on the plane.

The Sichuanese guy next to me hears me speak Chinese and immediately starts a conversation. After the one-hour flight we are now pengyoumen (frieds) which means that he insists on taking care of me now. This means that he is now in charge.

As my Chinese new friend he tells me there’s no hurry we can let everybody else get off the plane and then walk out without other people pushing us. It also means that he informs me of every little step in front of me, so I don’t fall and that he insists on carrying my heavy backpack to the luggage pick up area, where we say goodbye.

When I exit Shuangliu airport at almost midnight I have a giant smile on my face. I get a cab and when we don’t find my friends house the cabbie lends me his phone so I can call and ask for directions. We chat about this and that and agree that we both like Chengdu for the food, the slow lifestyle and because Chengdu people are tebie reqing (very warm-hearted). I soak in the cityscape and feeling completely happy and at ease.

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2 comments on “Back home in the middle kingdom – How China Eastern Airlines are fostering Chinese civil society (maybe)

  1. ..Viv, as usual, your report is full of amusing observations and your personal recognizable brand of goodwill towards everyone..:) ..thank you for sharing your experiences with us!

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